Brontëana, praise of sisterhood and the feminine imagination

THE BD BOX – The Franco-Argentine Paulina Spucches pays homage to the lesser known of the Brontë sisters, Anne, in a flamboyant fictionalized biography done in gouache, far from the grayish hues ociated with British romanticism.

Adapted dozens of times for film, television, radio and theatre, The Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847) and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (idem) are monuments of literature. The same cannot be said ofAgnes Gray and of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, two novels written by Anne Brontë, the sadly forgotten third sister. “We always make women artists invisible throughout history. Even with the famous Brontes, we manage to hide one out of three sisters, to erase one of them. regrets the author Paulina Spucches. His comic Bronteana, a fictionalized biography released Thursday by Steinkis which insists on the links between the three sisters, repairs this “injustice” with brush strokes. The comic strip is made with gouache.

Born in France in 1999 from a pianist father and a cinephile mother – both Argentinian Paulina Spucches grew up with the idea that one could make art one’s profession and developed “a love for the image”. However, her interest in comics did not begin until high school, when she received a gift Panther by Brecht Evens, whose colorful abundance can be found today in his paintings. Blown away by the exhibition devoted to photographer Vivian Maier while she is still a student, she decides to draw a very beautiful first comic strip, published by Steinkis two years ago. The project Bronteana will be less spontaneous… while also starting from a “big slap” emotional.

Anne Brontë surprises her brother Branwell with Lydia Robinson, his employer’s wife. Paulina Spuchches / Steinkis

Attracted for a long time by Great Britain, Paulina Spucches embarks in 2021 on a solo trip between Bath and Edinburgh. He was advised to stop at Haworth, in Yorkshire, to visit the Brontë residence, transformed into a museum. “I had only read Emily Brontë at the time but I had fantasized about this universe a lot when I was a teenager, remembers the artist. Suddenly, you find yourself in their house, in their living room, and you are told: “They wrote their novels here”. I felt very small…”. On the spot, she discovers that Anne Brontë was not at all as she imagined: “I had built an image of the little sister who had done nothing, below her elders, who followed them like a little dog…” Nothing could be less false!

The next day, the discovery of the surrounding moor “beautiful, colorful, bright”far from the usual representations of British romanticism mark Paulina Spucches with a hot iron. A month after her return to France, she decides to draw a comic strip from it and to return there the following summer, ten days this time. She makes preparatory drawings, takes sunburn and meets members of the Brontë Society, who open the doors of their library to her: “They showed me Anne’s stockings – a sock embroidered with her initials – it was so cute: she had tiny feet!”

The clever cutout conveys the tension of the confrontation between Charlotte and Anne, while effectively guiding the gaze. Paulina Spuchches / Steinkis

First of all, the title of Bronteana may seem mysterious. “It is a weave around the Brontë, explains the artist, before specifying that“in Spanish, when we talk about the writing of Borges for example, we use the word borgeana”. Bronteana can also evoke a fantastic universe, in reference to the astonishing imaginary kingdoms designed by the Brontë siblings, Gondal (with their brother Branwell) then Angria. “For me, it was completely role-playing before its time!” enthuses the author, who has also invented her own RPG inspired by Magic cards with a friend. Finally, the poetic sounds of Bronteana recall that comics, although based on documented real facts, remain fictional.

Due to the ultra-patriarchal Victorian era, the Brontë sisters were first published under male pseudonyms. This did not prevent the content of their books from shocking part of the readership, despite their success. “These are very avant-garde feminist works on the condition of women, at a time when no one talked about what it was like to be one”recalls Paulina Spucches, who details below a key plate representing their metamorphosis…

The comic box

When Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë become Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell… Paulina Spuchches / Steinkis

This plate illustrates the transformation of the sisters Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë into brothers Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, in order to cross the doors of the publishing houses forbidden to women.

“In an early version of the comic, Acton Bell was a character in his own right and he walked a long way through the Angria universe. (imaginary world created by the Brontë siblings, Ed) in parallel with the story with Anne… It was a little too complex and I had to simplify”, says Paulina Spucches. This “materialization of pen names into characters” is nevertheless found in the board above: “They put on their warrior costumes, they take up the weapons of writing!” Costumes inspired by pre-Raphaelism, biblical representations (reference to the faith of the sisters, which is not directly dealt with in the book) and Strength by Sandro Botticelli.

When Anne was asked what she wanted the most, she said “age and experience”, which is crazy for a 4 year old!

Paulina Spuchches

At the top left, the flight of the headdresses represents the liberation from a social constraint, that of not being able to express oneself publicly through writing as a woman. Headdresses then replaced by masks, a symbol of secret identities and a very common motif among the Brontë. At the beginning of the comic, Emily tells the true anecdote about a mask that everyone had to put on to tell the truth. “When Anne was asked what she wanted most, she said ‘age and experience’, which is crazy for a 4-year-old!” smiles Paulina Spucches.

Note that the page is not divided into traditional boxes, even if there are four parts with moving borders. A very conscious choice on the part of the artist: “I wanted us to feel the presence of nature, the movement of the wind, the spirits… In Rene in Sleeping Woods, I loved when it went in all directions, I thought it was great!” The three sisters of course evoke the emancipated figure of the witch: “They dance around a stone, a bit like in a mystical ceremony” in which writing would be their magical power. Anne’s red hair and the red eyes of her accomplices reinforce this impression. As for the generous chromatic palette, it multiplies the energy of the scene tenfold: “When I show my work, you think it’s youth because I do color… We have to bring it back to the adult world, so that it shines!”

Writing together is an act of sisterhood! But it was also an act of survival, because Branwell was no longer able to support them, their father was aging, losing his sight… and neither of them was ready to be married.

Paulina Spuchches

To design this page, the author says she was content with a quick placement of the characters, with little or no sketching, before moving on to painting. She usually uses a light table to make these little markers appear on her sheet. “I try not to ask myself questions when I draw. I like to keep the clumsiness and over time it progresses. I realized that the boards I preferred were the ones where I was less worried! The more spontaneous it is, the more something happens.” About the comic as a whole, she still confesses to having made some digital corrections at the very end, “when it was really cata!”.

Many fictions about the Brontës insist on the link between Emily and her brother Bran, for example the film Emily released March 2023, starring Emma Mackey. A questionable choice for Paulina Spucches: “It was mostly a story of sisters. Writing together is an act of sisterhood! But it was also an act of survival, because Branwell was no longer able to support them, their father was aging, losing his sight…and neither of them was ready to be married.” Charlotte was the only one to marry, in 1854, but she died less than a year later, aged 38. Her brother had died in 1848 at age 31, Emily the same year at age 30, and Anne in 1849 at age 29. The writings of the Brontes remain immortal.

Bronteana, by Paulina Spucches, Steinkis, 216 pages, 25 euros.

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